Sunday, April 8, 2012

Down From the Pedestal

Because he is so young compared to most in his sport, many people forget that Tiger Woods already has had a remarkable career.

He's won two of the four major tournaments four times each — the exceptions are the U.S. Open and The Open Championship, both of which he has won three times and came close to winning on a few other occasions. He also holds records for the most consecutive weeks in the top spot and the most total weeks ranked #1.

If he isn't the best golfer of all time, his name belongs in the conversation.

His pro career isn't over, of course. Many pro golfers are just hitting their stride when they are Woods' age (36), which means there may well be some more titles in his future — perhaps many more — even though he hasn't won a major since 2008, and he hasn't won two or more in a calendar year since 2006.

It doesn't look as if he will add to his majors total in today's concluding round of The Masters. There is too much ground to make up, too many golfers to overtake.

Woods won his first major, the 1997 Masters, 15 years ago this month. Only 21 years old at the time, Woods was the youngest–ever Masters champion, He wasn't the first black golfer to win at Augusta — Lee Elder accomplished that in 1975, less than a year before Woods was born — and he struggled out of the gate, but he won the tournament in dominating fashion, setting scoring records that still stand today.

Through the first nine holes, Woods was four–over par, but he finished the round three shots off the pace at two–under par. He seized control of the tournament in the second round, shooting a six–under 66.

(Nothing like that happened this year, of course. Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press describes Tiger's second round of the Masters as "a foul–mouthed, club–kicking back nine ... that would have gotten you or me thrown off much lesser golf courses.")

Back in 1997, the third day was much like the second. Woods shot a 65 and took a nine–stroke lead into the final round. He only shot a 69 on the last day, but that was good enough to add three strokes to his final margin. His eventual margin of victory (12 strokes) is still the greatest ever in the Masters — and it was a record for all of the majors until Woods himself bested it with a 15–stroke win at the U.S. Open.

If anyone in golf is regarded as a natural (a la Robert Redford in his memorable baseball movie role), it must be Woods. So often, from his childhood through his young adulthood, it has seemed that things have come so effortlessly for him — the championships, the money, the adoring women.

The 1997 Masters made him seem like golf's version of Secretariat, pulling away from the field like (in the words of horse race caller Chic Anderson) "a tremendous machine" and strolling to the clubhouse to pick up his first green jacket. Hard as it may be to recall now, there was a period there in the late 1990s when many spoke of wanting to "Tiger proof" their golf courses with par–6 holes.

Undoubtedly, Tiger was a role model for millions. He was golf's golden boy who struck it rich with endorsement deals as well as tournament triumphs. In a post–Michael Jordan world (or one that was nearly so in 1997), he was the new Muhammad Ali of sports in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, recognized by all, master of all he or anyone else could see.

But, as both Jordan and Ali could have told him, such a time is fleeting. America loves its sports heroes, but it always ends — too soon for most athletes — and the love affair with Tiger was tarnished long before this year's Masters.

His tantrums on the Augusta National course in the last few days indicate that Tiger has been doing things in reverse order. He was a child prodigy for whom success came too early; he lacks the maturity and discipline now to learn and, eventually, benefit from mistakes and setbacks.

His enablers may say otherwise, but he hastened his own plummet from golf's pedestal.

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